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A Translator in Your Pocket: App Aims to Bridge Refugees’ Language Gap

A group of MIT graduates have developed a Facebook Messenger app that connects refugees with volunteer translators in real time. Refugees Deeply spoke with Atif Javed, one of the cofounders of Tarjimly.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
An Afghan refugee speaks on a mobile phone outside an old train carriage where he and other migrants took refuge in Belgrade, Serbia, Feb. 2, 2017. AP/Muhammed Muheisen

Atif Javed and his cofounders wanted to launch Tarjimly, a Facebook Messenger app that connects volunteer translators with refugees, late last year during the crisis in Aleppo. (Tarjimly means “translate for me” in Arabic.)

But it wasn’t ready yet. The five Muslim-American college friends, who met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had little time to work on the project outside of their full-time jobs. Two of them now live in the Middle East, and Javed and the other two cofounders work in Silicon Valley. They are the typical “techies in the Bay Area,” he says.

Then, in late January, the group saw relatives and friends detained at U.S. airports (as a result of Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration) struggle to communicate in English. They couldn’t wait to launch the app any longer.

Javed announced the Facebook Messenger app in a Facebook post appealing for 300 volunteer translators. Over 1,700 people have since signed up to translate for refugees and the humanitarian workers and volunteers who help them.

The Tarjimly team is now working to publicly launch the app. They hope to formalize partnerships with organizations working with refugees in order to get feedback during a controlled release phase. If everything goes as planned, refugees will be able to access the Messenger app towards the end of March.

Refugees Deeply: How did the idea for Tarjimly first come about?

Atif Javed: We really wanted to do something to help out refugees. This cause has been very close to us, given that we’re all Muslim-American. One of our team members went to the refugee camps in Greece, and his experience was life changing. He kept seeing that translation was a big issue: If you spoke Arabic, Farsi or Pashto, you were pulled left and right, spending 90 percent of your time just translating for other people. On the other hand, you have many volunteers from Europe who can’t really communicate with the Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians or Somalis coming to these camps. So we brainstormed the idea of being able to crowdsource translators and get them quickly connected to people who need translation help. That way, every volunteer, and even every refugee, has a translator in their pocket.

Refugees Deeply: How will they use the app? Could you describe the process?

Javed: All a refugee or a person who works with refugees has to do is message our app. If you don’t have a Facebook account, you can sign up with your phone number. You search Tarjimly on Messenger, send us a message. Then you select the two languages that you need help translating between, and you’re instantly connected to one of our translators. Hopefully within a minute or two, there’s going to be a translator available for you, ready to help you out. You can use different keyboard inputs, you can use audio notes. What we see from working with the demos is that a lot of the translators are really excited to use audio notes, which is similar to you being able to call them.

There’s a lot of cool technology behind how you select the right person to ping; how to get the person with the right Arabic dialect. If you can match a Moroccan with a Moroccan, that’s much better then getting different Arabic dialects, which gets complicated for people. And how you match time zones so that you’re not pinging people at 3 a.m.

Refugees Deeply: Who are your target users? And where, geographically, is the greatest need for such a Messenger app?

Javed: Ideally, it’s global: anywhere a refugee can use it. Whether it’s refugees far down the pipeline in camps in Greece, or far up the pipeline in resettlement in San Diego. Theoretically, this could apply to anyone in need of translation help. The immigrants detained at airports is another perfect example of who could use this app.

My theory is that the people who are going to like it a lot are the people who are working with the refugees on a day-to-day basis. Language is so fundamental, it’s so critical to your ability to connect with another human being. How can you help people efficiently and effectively if you can’t communicate with them?

Refugees Deeply: How did you make Tarjimly happen? How did you develop the bot and then get the word out there?

Javed: I’m a product manager, so I work on product testing, customer research and things like that. My friends are developers, so they did a lot of the back and front end of the technology. This is not a very orthodox type of bot; usually a bot is a machine you communicate with. We’re using our bot to connect people, which is actually very difficult. We spent four to five months developing this on the side, while we were doing our full-time jobs.

Then we had some family and friends who were detained at the airport [after Trump’s ban] who are immigrants and don’t speak English well. That’s the kind of situation where you’ve got to deliver this product. So I put up a Facebook post, and two or three days later there were 400 shares. A lot of people were receptive to the idea. We got 15-20 people emailing us immediately, saying, ‘I need this, I need to use this now, tell me when this is going to be available.’ So we’re trying really hard to sprint and get it out there next month.

Refugees Deeply: There are other translation services out there. What do you offer that the others don’t have?

Javed: We get that question a lot, especially asking if it was just like Google Translate. But if you have ever used Google Translate for Arabic, you will see why that is not going to work. It’s a very poor way to translate for people; it’s not a human interface. It’s a huge difference when people are able to interact with a human: They can understand the situation; they can give a lot more context in their responses. That’s much more powerful and meaningful.

If you look at technology megatrends, apps are dying and social messaging is increasing. There may be other apps to connect you with translators, but you won’t find many people on them. It’s also about having a brand name. Hopefully, with the right exposure, people will recognize our name going forward. We’ll plug into organizations, and then more people will start to use this. We generally have a huge competitive advantage by being able to connect you to people who speak in your dialect.

Refugees Deeply: Hundreds of translators have signed up already. Where are they based, and what languages are they offering?

We have over 1,500 translators signed up. [In addition to English,] 900 speak Arabic, 130 speak Farsi, 130 speak Urdu, and 50 speak Pashto. Many translators also know French, Greek, German and Turkish. About half are from the U.S. and U.K., and the other half are from all over the world.

Refugees Deeply: Do you have a system in place to control the quality of the translations?

Javed: This is going to be an ongoing process. What we want to do first is get ratings. After every session you can send a one-, two- or three-star rating of that translator. The translators will also state their proficiency and their experience level, and we’ll do quizzes or demos that will help us assess how good they are. The other thing that we can do is aggregate random and anonymized conversation analysis. And then, if there’s any frustration between a translator and the person they are speaking with, you can just end that conversation and ping again, and then you’ll be connected to another person.

Refugees Deeply: How do you foresee the business model developing?

Javed: Our measure of success is: Can we impact people’s lives, can we help people? If it serves that purpose, I’m happy with it. However, we did explore the idea of offering a base of really good translators paid opportunities, and then connecting them with businesses. Then we would have translators on demand, like Uber for translators. But that’s a long-term vision. For now, we want to make sure we’re helping people out.

This interview was conducted by phone and email has been edited for length and clarity.

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